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Ça ira! : or, Danton in the French revolution, a study online

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the violence by their rapacity and selfishness, the masses did
liy their suspicion and cruelty. But I insist on this : that the
Revolution did the will of the Intelligence that directs hu-
man events. The counter-Revolution opposed tliat will : that
made it " sinful " in a truly religious sense ; and the further
fact that this opposition was essentially egoistic, made it

This resistance by the re-actionary forces of France was so
terrific, violating without scruple one of the most sacred of
the sentiments of that day, — patriotism, — that it required
immense, herculean efforts on the part of the patriots to over-


come it. Hence the delirium, the hysterics of the Parisians.
Hence the massacres. Henck the Terror.

Note this other imj)ortant point, — that precisely this
terrific resistance of the counter- Revolution, together with its
complete failure, did immensely set in relief the success of
the Revolution. The resistance had very much the same
effect that enclosure has on powder : it made the Revolution
march so much the quicker, and its victories so much the
more decisive. This, precisely, enabled France to reach in
a few years the stage which it had taken Great Britain a
century and a half to attain, and even to go beyond it.

By joining the two ideas, — of the Revolution as the de-
cree of evolution, and of the counter- Revolution as opposing
this decree, — we get a key to the totality of those events
known as " the French Revolution." To overlook the coun-
ter-Revolution entirely is like a sculptor who should make,
instead of two fighting gladiators, only one : that one, instead
of being a gladiator, straining every nerve for a purpose,
would apjjcar simply a lunatic ; and that is, indeed, what
historians have made the French people out to be.

We meet with the counter- Revolution at the very threshold.
The exuberant tone of joy, confidence, and hopefulness, yes,
the modesty of the people, on all occasions at the beginning
of the Revolution, are responded to by the court by the very
opposite feelings.

The first chapter clsoed with the people cheering the
Queen, and the Queen smiling on the people ; but at that
very moment she did another thing which the people did
not see, — she sent for troops.

It closed with the Nobility joining the National Assembly
at the express command of the court. The very next morn-
ing the court repented, aiul appealed to force. They sur-
rounded first llie National Assembly, and then Paris, with
foreign troojjs, — Swiss, Germans, and Tyrolese. This natu-


rally excited in everybody a suspicion tliat the court intended
to dissolve the Assembly, overawe Paris, and with one blow
restore the old order of things, as now we know were, in
fact, its intentions.

The response to this threat was the storming of the Bas-
tille by the people of Paris on the 14th of July, the day which
the third French Republic has proclaimed a national holi-
day, and now for a good many years has celebrated as such.

Oh, well may the French well-to-do middle classes, whose
republic this third French Republic is, celebrate the day,
for it set the seal on their previous victory. They have
reaped all the substantial benefits of the day, and yet their
personal share in the taking of the Bastille was very small.
They had come to the conclusion that the " lower classes,"
with beating, suffering, hoping hearts in their bosoms, were
excellent " masses " wherewith to blow down Bastilles, and
so they egged them on. But one thing they forgot,

— that precisely in that way did they teach these masses
their strength and the use of brute force.

Well, the Bastille was overthrown in broad daylight, just as
a rock is buried by the rolling waves of the ocean.

But the spirit of the plutocrats was odiously displayed right
thereafter, when the committee of citizens appointed to pre-
serve order, and who had appointed Bailly mayor of Paris,
forbade /he poo?' to zvear ihe patriotic cockade under pain of
arrest. It was tlie wedge entering for the first time between
middle classes and the working-classes.

Three days thereafter, Louis, who fifteen years before had
been crowned king by the grace of God, now suffered him-
self, in a hypocritic flishion, to be re-crowned king by the
grace of the middle classes. After hearing mass — to pre-
pare himself for the worst — he arrived from Versailles at the
l)arrier of Paris at three in the afternoon, drove between two
lines of silent, determined men to the Hotel de Ville (the


town-liall), ascended its staircase under a canopy of steel
made (after tlie manner of Free-Masons, but unfamiliar to
him) by swords placed crosswise, received from the hands
of Bailly, the mayor, the new tricolor national cockade, which
he placed in. his hat, and showed himself from the balcony
to the crowd below, — a middle-class king.

Now the plutocrats, the French bourgeoisie, can certainly
sing from one end of France to the other, ^^ Ali, ga iraf" —
"it goes merrily ! "

But the Queen, on going to meet the King on his return to
Versailles, and seeing the national cockade still in his hat,
contemptuously exclaims, " I did not know I had married a
plebeian." And princes of the blood flee the country :

this is the beginning of what will be known as the Emigra-
tion, the most sinister form of the counter- Revolution.
Instead of bravely staying at their posts, at court, in the
Assembly, in the administrative ofifices, and, since they will
not compromise with the Revolution, at least honestly fight-
ing it out amongst themselves, they give up all at home,
like cowards, to call on the hated foreigners for assistance.
* * *

Since the foundation of the new regime is already laid,
the crash can lunu come : the feudal system can now be
torn down with safety, and with ease as well.

To accomplish this, the bouigeoisie wrought, further, in
the raw material at hand, the masses, all over the country.
The jieasants were set in motion, fagots in hand, with wliich
they set fire to the castles of the nobility ; not so much, how-
ever, with the intention of destroying the buildings as — on
the admission of the nobles themselves — to do away with
the title-deeds, which were the evidence of the feudal bur-
dens resting so heavily on them and on agriculture.

This violence brought on the unexampled night o{ Aug. 4.
It is noteworthy that Miral)eau, the alleged " maker " of the

1789.] AUGUST FOURTH. 43

Revolution, did not contribute any thing to this the second
step in the great change, either. He was absent ; those
present turned tlieir eyes in the direction of his seat, and,
seeing it vacant, wondered. But afterwards he who had
declared his motto to be " War to all privileges and privi-
leged," called that sitting a " delirium of suicide."

Yes, it was a delirium, but one of which, to some extent,
humanity has reason to be proud. For, even after making
every allowance for the fright caused by the agitation of the
peasants, there were certainly some noble minds who that
night were moved by the great, generous ideas of the century,
and gave practical proofs of it by great sacrifices — principal
among these the first speaker, the Duke d'Aiguillon.

I sometimes delight in fancying another picture, — one
representing, at the time Garrison's anti-slavery agitation was
at its height, some of the slave-barons of the Southern States
of America, in a similar fit of patriotic enthusiasm, rising
in their seats in Congress, and freely relinquishing slavery !
What sufferings might such act have spared to themselves,
their class, and the nation !

For here in that most memorable of sittings of which the
history of assemblies has preserved a remembrance, which
lasted from eight in the evening till two in the morning, the
representatives of the privileged classes arose, one after the
other, and in a fever of generosity renounced one privilege,
one riglit, after another: one the pension of lohich he was in
receipt, another the fees to which he was en ti tied as a magis-
trate ; some absolutely beggaring themselves, but most of them,
undoubtedly, doing, from what was real compulsion, that
which was much easier, — donating to the nation other peo-
])le's property. The fanatical resistance, then, which

has been spoken of above, concerned not so much their
personal privileges, for that night there was no discussion,
and no need for any ; the prevailing enthusiasm was born


of a profound conviction that tlie moment had come to
put an end to these : it was the aboHtion of the privileges
of their monarchy and their church, it was the supremacy of
the middle classes, that aroused their unreasoning opposition.

And so, when the session closed, they had abolished all
the feudal burdens that rested on the peasants and on agri-
culture, as the tillies, the duty of the latter to grind their
corn at their landlords' mill, the duty, to work on tlie high-
ways, the right of the chase, etc. ; furthermore, the guilds
and all burdens on industry, including the provincial custom-
houses ; then inequalities in taxation, the purchase and sale
of judicial offices, and many other ancient abuses.

My readers, aware that in our Legislatures a bill must be
read a first, second, and third time before it can become a
law, may ask in wonder how all these changes could possibly
be accomplished in one short session. They must then
know that in these first French assemblies all artificial bar-
riers on legislation were unknown. A member had only,
as in this session of the 4th of August, to make a motion
embodying a principle, and have it, as here, adopted by
acclamation. To be sure, the details had then to be worked
out afterwards, but that was more particularly the work of
committees ; while the submission of the finished bill to the
Assembly, and adoption by it, were often but mere forms,
though it, of course, took time, and therefore it lasted many
months before the measures of that celebrated night were
finally realized. It is important to bear the above in mintl,
in ortler to understand how, later on, Danton was able, by a
simjjle motion, to have adopted the stern and far-reaching
revolutionary measures of which he became the author.

When the French people awoke the next morning, they
really found themselves in a perfectly new society. Individ-
7/(1 /ism 7oas >ifl7ci frimiipliaiit. But let me again insist on
this, — for it contains a most important lesson for us, — that

1789.1 AUGUST FOURTH. 45

the old system fell when it was fully ripe, and when, so to
say, it had to fall of itself, and not before the foundation
of the new system had been laid. The philosopher

Quinet, by the way, has curious ideas on this subject. He
says, "If Frenchmen had simply wished for material im-
provement and civil equality, the Revolution would have
ended here. But what I most admire is the small impres-
sion these sacrifices made on people's minds. I deem it
to the eternal honor of the men of '89 that they were not
satisfied with these things, if liberty were not addedP

Why, what more " liberty " did they want, or could they
have ? Here the people's representatives were making the
most radical changes, according to their own sweet will, and
taking the king's consent for granted, or — immaterial !

As to the " small impression on the people's mind," let us
see. Whom did these changes benefit?

First, the peasants were undoubtedly benefited. The
shackles were struck from French agriculture by its being
relieved from the terribly oppressive feudal burdens, and, as
a consequence, it attained, at a bound as it were, a most
remarkable development, justifying all the Encyclopajdists
liad claimed and foretold. Further, the equalization of taxa-
tion was an immense boon to the peasants, who hitherto had
paid the by far largest portion of the taxes. These were great
benefits, but these were all the benefits the peasants derived
from the Revolution, and, mark, those peasants only who
possessed some land.

Next, industry was greatly benefited. For the night of
.'\ug. 4 realized all the economic demands made by the
writers of the Encyclopczdia ; to wit, freedom of action, free-
dom of competition, and unrestricted private enterprise :
and the consequence was, that industry, likewise, attained a
steadily growing development.

But this benefited only the middle classes ; that is to say,


only those who owned raw materials and means of produc-
tion. But the masses, the poor, the workers who possessed
nothing but their labor? They, whether in town or country,
were not benefited at all.

True, they now became free as to their persons and their
actions ; as far as the bom-gcoisic had secured that much of
liberty for them, it represented the whole people, and had
raised the masses with itself. But was this done from sym-
pathy with the masses? Not at all. The plutocrats had
done it because it was absolutely essential to themselves as
a class ; because the new mode of industry and agriculture
required that workmen and laborers should be able to migrate
from places where their labor was not wanted, to places where
it was. How far the interests of the masses were

from the minds of the boiirgeokie, is shown by the fact, that
when, during the same sitting of Aug. 4, Malouet, moved by
an inspiration that should honor his memory, entreated his
colleagues to consider the lot of the laboring classes, and
establish workshops for those who were out of work, a general
murmur arose, and — they passed on to other matters.

On the one hand, how much their own interests were
present to their minds, is shown in a striking manner by
the subject of the tithes. There was hardly any thing that
pressed so heavily on agriculture as these tithes, and there-
fore one of the most important achievements of Aug. 4
had been their abolition, in principle, but against a ransojn.
A few days after, a bill with the details worked out is pre-
sented to the Assembly for its sanction, which bill al)olished
the tithes, without any compensation whatsoever. Then
Abb6 Sieyes stood up and did just the right thing. He ob-
jected to it as different in principle from what was resolved
the other night. He pointed out that these tithes had been
levied to afford a living to the lower clergy, and, to a very
large extent, to support the i)Oor ; that, indeed, the tithes

1789.1 AUGUST FOURTH. 47

7t'(7v tlic only poor-Jitnds in France. He insisted, with much
energy, tliat to abolish the tithes, without compensation,
would be robbing the poor, and making a gift outright to
proprietors, who had not the least equitable title to be with
one stroke relieved from paying them. No matter !

Let the poor be robbed, said the Assembly, virtually, in
ordering that a splendid gift of a yearly revenue of twenty-
five million dollars, and more than twice that amount in our
money, should be made io property-lioldcrs.

I shall here remark that Dan ton, who, I contend, was
generally in the right, made a most unjust attack on Sieyes
for his action in this matter, and claimed that he, the
" priest," had defended the tithes, and in doing so had con-
sidered nothing but the interests of his order. But Sieyes had
done no such thing : he defended the interests of the poor.
He did not oppose himself to the abohtion of the tithes, but
to the non-compensation clause.

If, therefore, the sacrifices of Aug. 4 had made little im-
pression on the minds of the masses, it would have been
no wonder. It was the middle classes for whom things
had succeeded splendidly, and who could sing " (^a ira ! "
with more unction than ever.

But soon a great event occurs that shows that the Parisian
masses had nevertheless been sufficiently impressed never to
allow the Revolution to be undone. For, when some

weeks had passed, the counter-Revolution raises its head
again. They want to carry Louis off to Metz, and from
there commence a civil war in whose abyss the Revolu-
tion shall disappear. The arrival of a loyal regiment from
Inlanders at Versailles gives officer-conspirators opportunity
to meet at bancjuets, which the King and Queen attend, and
where the national cockade is trodden under foot, and re-
venge is sworn. News of this spreads among the Parisians.
This is the occasion when Danton for the first time enters


actively into the Revolution. He causes his club to issue
a rousing call on the people to march on Versailles. The
Parisians do march, first the women of the market-halls, and
then the men, and, by gentle but very effective persuasions,
succeed in taking back with them to Paris the royal family,
whom they lodge in the palace of the Tuileries. From this
time Paris — then a city of eight hundred thousand inhabit-
ants — becomes the central theatre of action.

These strange proceedings take place on the 6th of Oc-
tober, 1789, and have far-reaching effects, for they robbed
royalty of all its nimbus in the eyes of Frenchmen — forever.
More than that. We have hitherto found the Parisian popu-
lation very, very modest; even the bourgeoisie was so at
first. But now that modesty, also, vanishes ; that is to say,
in tlie working-class as a body, in corpore. All through the
Revolution they remain self-distrustful as individuals.

Already, after the " delirium of suicide," a great many
nobles had followed the example of the princes of the blood ;
now, after the 6th of October, there is a perfect exodus of
nobles and priests.

Another circumstance that shows that the masses were
really "impressed " by the course of the Revolution so far,
is the joyful, confident, and enthusiastic mood of the people
on all occasions now and for some time yet to come, and
which contrasts so wonderfully with the spirit that shall take
possession of them three years hence.

The King, some time during the following February, takes
it into his head to pay a visit to his National Assembly, which
has followed the royal family to Paris, and holds its sittings
in a riding-school near the palace. He comes informally,
and this simple circumstance so affects all its members, that
they fall into each other's arms and swear fidelity to the father-
land. Paris, when she hears of it, is affected in the same
manner, and takes up the cry, " We swear ! " and the whole

1790.] AUGUST FOURTH. 49

country follows suit, so that for three whole weeks all France
resounds with the cry, " \Ve all swear ! "

But it is when the first anniversary of the taking of the
Bastille comes round that this enthusiasm reaches its height.

National guards from the departments swarmed into Paris.
Platforms for the patriots were being constructed in the
Champ de Mars, a huge open space almost in the centre
of Old Paris. Then it was rumored that fifteen thousand
workmen were not sufficient to finish the work in time. A
simultaneous impulse moved the entire population of Paris
at the report, and soon there was an ant-hill of a hundred and
fifty thousand workmen, trundling wheelbarrows and digging
the ground in a workshop forty thousand yards in width, and
whose length went clean beyond sight.

Every district, every corporation, every family, was repre-
sented there. Drums were beating, bands were playing ;
women and children come on, three abreast, with spades on
their shoulders, singing the new song, "(7c? /rcz/" Old men
and women aided in erecting the " altar of the country," —
the altar on which to take the civil oath, the oath of liberty and
equality. Collegians, schoolboys, students of the Academy of
Painting and of the Veterinary School, market-porters, "■ who
are as good as the strong men of Israel," printers, — those
of Prudhomme decorated with his paper, Les Revolutions
de Paris — charcoal-burners who had quitted their living
sepulchres, and were asking in bewilderment, " What is this
for a psalm, ' (7a ira ' .? " Women laughed and danced around
bewildered monks. Swiss guards, French guards, market-
women, and court ladies were all there. The King came, and
they applauded him. Lafayette came, and he was applauded
even more than the King. All was confidence and fraternity
during these blissful hours. Not a theft took place. Mar-
quises removed their gloves to shake hand with coal-porters.

The following night was passed by great numbers on the


Champ (le Mars. Multitudes were up with sunrise. Furious
rain-storms arose ; but in the teeth of the wind, and under
the lash of the rain, the folks from Auvergne danced their
dourree, and the Provencals their farandoles. Immense
rings of dancers were formed. " Look at these Frenchmen,
dancing while the rain is falling in torrents," said astonished

After the taking of the civic oath l)y the King and the
high functionaries, followed beating of drums, firing of guns,
waving of swords, shouts of triumph, tossing of hats into
the air. All were drunk with enthusiasm. One unanimous
cry issued from the lips of six hundred thousand Frenchmen :
" France is free ! we swear it ! " Fathers held up the hands
of their little children.

And the site of the Bastille was turned into an artificial
wood, in which large trees were lighted up, and adorned
with pikes and Phrygian caps, and with the famous inscrip-
tion, " Dancing here."

No wonder that Frenchmen of to-day are seriously debat-
ing whether, in the monument of the Revolution soon to be
erected, they should not immortalize this great " Festival of
the Federation," as it was called, rather than the taking
of the Bastille.

And is it not evident from this, that all the horrors that
followed might very well have been avoided ? that, indeed,
they would never have occurred if the court party had but
])hilosophically accepted the handwriting on the wall, like
their English brethren, and even if the nobles had not been
such dastards as to lead a foreign foe against their fatherland ?
* * *■

So far we have seen the National Assembly only destructive,
clearing the way for the dominion of the i)lutocracy. Now

• Tliis description is taken from Camillc's newspaper, Revolutions 0/ France
and lirabaitt.


we shall see the same Assembly organizing, upbuilding, that
dominion, it goes without saying. In that character it is
known in history as the Constituent Assembly, constituting
the political constitution of France, a work that took it fully
two years.

In that capacity it had very much to do, indeed. Part of
this it did very well ; some of its work was of doubtful

Let us bear in mind that all the old institutions were vir-
tually razed to the ground ; all was tabula rasa. They had
to rebuild even the whole administrative and governmental
machinery. In this work they could do about as they
pleased : there was no power strong enough to hinder them,
and no doubt they wanted to do the best they knew.

But the mischief was, that they did not know, and could
not know, what really was best to do. Their views were
naturally very narrow, because their horizon was limited.
As a matter of fact, they had destroyed one social order, and
were to prepare for a new social order, separated from them
by several generations ; but how could they know that ?
How could they know that the actual institutions which they
themselves were going to erect were, in the nature of things,
merely to be temporary, transitional ; so to speak, but a scaf-
folding for the coming social order?

All the ideas they had were those which the thinkers of
the preceding generation, and more particularly Montesquieu,
Diderot, and Rousseau had inoculated them with, — the same
ideas that filled the heads of the whole of their own gener-
ation ; the ideas that were embodied in the cahiers, or plat-
forms, on which they had been elected. Further, they had,
besides these ideas, an example, a model, before their eyes,
— that of England. And lastly, and really most important in
iletermining the character of the work they had to do, this
fact, that they all belonged to the well-tj-do middle classes.


The Assembly was a middle-class assembly ; its armed force
was the National Guard, all middle-class men ; their mayor,
Bailly, who controlled the popular forces of Paris, was a
middle-class man. In the nature of things, therefore, they
did not and would not labor for the multitude, but for men

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